Two days after the American Federation of Teachers approved a resolution authorizing "safety strikes" by its locals throughout the U.S. if appropriate protective measures weren't taken in their school districts, President Randi Weingarten said a primary motivation was the "reckless" ultimatum issued by the Trump Administration that schools fully reopen on schedule.
Ms. Weingarten, who has feuded with President Trump and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos throughout their tenures, said their threat to withhold funds from districts that didn't comply put added pressure on the districts at the same time that the administration was offering no guidance for how to reopen safely.
DeVos: No Need
When Ms. DeVos, the day after the AFT's 45-member executive council voted July 28 to authorize local strikes, contended there was no need for a national reopening plan, it prompted a two-network attack by the union leader.
Appearing on CNN the following morning, she contrasted the lack of a plan from the U.S. Department of Education with one the AFT cobbled together last spring, not long after the coronavirus pandemic led to the closing of most schools around the country.
"Frankly, if we could put it together in April, what has Betsy DeVos been doing?" Ms. Weingarten asked. "They refuse to put any guidance together, and ultimately, that's why a lot of people are very scared right now."
She added regarding the Trump Administration, "Frankly, they've been reckless and dangerous in saying fully reopen or else."
Because requiring that classes be conducted remotely creates child-care issues for many parents and hinders the economy from more fully reviving, Mr. Trump was pushing hard for in-person classes only, even before the disclosure July 30 that the nation had suffered the largest drop in Gross Domestic Product in its history because of the pandemic's economic impact.
Death Toll Spurred Caution
But significant losses of life among educators who were believed to have contracted the disease in school prior to the mid-March shutdowns—Ms. Weingarten said the AFT had lost 200 members to the coronavirus, with roughly a third of them members of the United Federation of Teachers, which she headed from 1997 to 2009—has led union members to be increasingly insistent they wouldn't risk sacrificing their health if they weren't assured that schools were safe.
"We know kids need school—in school," Ms. Weingarten said during an afternoon appearance on Bloomberg TV hours after the GDP plummet became known. But she said that she was troubled that "you've got the deniers and you've got the magical thinking" that seemed to be influencing some Governors and the White House.
She mentioned Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, whose state has been deluged with cases after he told most businesses it was safe to reopen in late spring, and Mr. Trump, who earlier this year suggested the virus would die out when the weather got warmer and later argued that injecting clorox into patients' veins might cure them. He has continued to play down the extent of the danger even as the U.S. death toll climbed past 150,000, far higher per person than in virtually any other nation.
"What we need to do," Ms. Weingarten told her CNN interviewer, "like all the other countries in the world have done, is that the government has to work together with people on the ground doing the essential work to make sure everyone is safe."
'Who Would Trust Them?'
In a fiery speech July 28 to delegates at the AFT convention, she had said, "Why would anyone trust President Trump with reopening schools, when he has mishandled everything else about the coronavirus? Why would anyone trust Betsy DeVos, who has zero credibility about how public schools actually work? Why would anyone try to reopen schools through force and threats, without a plan and without resources, creating chaos?"
She went on to note that before the "reopen or else" threats that were followed by spikes in cases, particularly in Florida, Texas, Arizona and California, a survey of AFT members throughout the country found that 76 percent of them said they were comfortable returning to their schools if safeguards were in place. "Now," Ms. Weingarten continued, "they're afraid and angry. Many are quitting, retiring or writing their wills. Parents are afraid and angry, too."
During the CNN interview two days later, she said the spike in cases had already led the Governors of Florida and Texas to announce that when public schools reopened beginning late in August, it would have to be remotely.
An added complication has been that both the UFT and its counterpart representing Principals, the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, within the past two weeks have expressed misgivings about the de Blasio administration's plan to do a mix of in-person and remote learning, saying there were too many unresolved issues to commit their members to entering school buildings as many as three days a week. UFT President Michael Mulgrew had previously warned that Mr. Trump's threat to withhold Federal funds from schools that did not feature in-person classes exclusively created concerns that the city might cut corners to avoid that loss in aid.
'Nothing's Off the Table'
In her convention speech, Ms. Weingarten had said, "Just as we have done with our health-care workers, we will fight on all fronts for the safety of our students and their educators. But if the authorities don't get it right, and they don't protect the safety and health of those we represent and those we serve, nothing is off the table—not advocacy or protests, negotiations, grievances or lawsuits, or, if necessary as a last resort, safety strikes."
Pressed by two Bloomberg TV interviewers about what might trigger local walkouts, she said, "If other people are going to be reckless and irresponsible, then we have a bigger obligation, not just to our members but to our communities and our children."
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